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Digesting History: A Conversation with the Museum of Food and Drink’s Curatorial Director Catherine Piccoli

Catherine Piccoli is a food historian and writer, whose work focuses on the intersection of food, culture, memory, and place. She brings this multidisciplinary approach to the Museum of Food and Drink. As curatorial director, she oversees the creation of MOFAD’s exhibitions and educational programming, and guides the operations team. Catherine was instrumental in the research, writing, and development of past major exhibitions, Flavor: Making It and Faking It and Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, as well as gallery shows Feasts and Festivals, Knights of the Raj, and Highlights from the Collection. She also established the museum’s robust public programming.

The following interview was originally conducted on November 25th, 2019.

What do you think separates MOFAD from other museums or similar institutions?

Because we are the Museum of Food and Drink, we start at a place of similarity with everyone. Everybody eats. Whether or not you like to eat, you have to do so multiple times a day. It’s something that we engage in out of necessity, it’s something that we engage with through culture, so I think having that starting point in common means that it’s much easier to reach people because they already have that interest in food. I think also because we believe that “Food is Culture”, and we do a lot of programming around that idea, we're meeting people with an idea that they're already comfortable and familiar with. Most people can think about what their families fed them, what they ate growing up, what is nostalgic to them, what is a part of their personal history and what that means to them. Then we can really take it from there and go in so many different directions and hopefully teach people something that they didn't know before. A big thing for us internally is thinking about the invisible every day. You can do that so easily with food. But when you open your refrigerator and you look at, say, a Chinese takeout box. What is the history of that food? What is the history of a Chinese takeout box? What is the history of a refrigerator? Why do we have one? Why is it an electric refrigerator? With all of these sorts of things, we can really blow people's minds wide open about food and use food as a lens to talk about larger ideas.

You mentioned that MOFAD’s slogan is “Food is Culture”. What does that mean to you in a historical context?

For me, that starts on a personal level. You know, your family's culture and history. We can take me for example, I am Italian-American and Polish- and Slovak-American, but I also grew up in the Midwest. So, growing up in Chicago, what are the things I grew up eating that my Italian family made? Or that my Slovak grandmother made? What does it mean to have grown up in a city with a really large Polish population? How did that impact the foods that I ate every day? And then you can go out even further than that to Poland. Cuisine in Poland, culture in Poland, how does that travel? What does transnational cuisine look like? How do cuisine and culture change when people move? For me, thinking "Food is Culture" is all-encompassing from the micro to the macro.

I have noticed that MOFAD offers an abundance of public programming, and that programming is more interactive than I have seen at other museums. What do you think the advantages are of inviting the public to become active participants in history?

We, not only in our public programming but also in our exhibitions, we feel it’s really important to engage people through all their senses. That's easy to do because food does that. When you come to see our exhibitions you will eat, you will literally, I like to say, "digest" the information that you have just literally digested. It's really important when you're talking about food to be able to experience it as well. We do that in our exhibitions as well as our public programming. We just had Marcus Samuelsson come last week and talk about the release of Our Harlem as an audiobook. He had some of the people that he interviewed there, they had a panel discussion and then there were foods from Red Rooster that people got to eat afterwards. Not everyone may be able to go to Red Rooster, but maybe you can come to MOFAD and taste some of those foods. Or not everyone may like to cook, or feel they're good enough to try one of those recipes. So they, too, can come to MOFAD and try that. Through the years we've done programming and exhibitions around the flavor industry. Which included programming around your sense of smell as well as things that you're eating and tasting. We've done honey tastings in the past, wine tasting, beer and cheese pairing, all sorts of different things to help people continue to engage with the topic but also think more deeply about food and drink.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of featuring only one exhibit at a time? For example, you currently are displaying "Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant".

For us, I guess you could say we are a fledgling institution, and our current space is called MOFAD Lab. We call it that instead of calling it the Museum of Food and Drink because we really saw it as our experimental space, our exhibition design studio or even our "test kitchen" if you want to have another pun; where we can test out how to be a museum. While MOFAD has existed as an idea since 2010, it wasn't until 2015 that we had our first physical space. The Lab is not big enough to have multiple full-size exhibitions, but that was okay for us because we're still a small team and doing one exhibition at a time really helps us to focus and make the best exhibition possible. It has worked very well for us, I think, but it can be difficult at times. You know Chow’s been open for a few years now so some people think we're the Chinese Restaurant Museum or even a Chinese-American restaurant sometimes, which is a little bit silly. But we find that when people come in who are confused, once they get to MOFAD Lab and we can talk to them and they can really understand what we're doing and want to come back and see more. It is our goal, ultimately, to grow to an institution on the scale of the Smithsonian or the Met. Obviously, this is our first step towards that and hopefully the next phase will be several galleries instead of one so we can have multiple exhibitions at a time.

What do you hope that a visitor who comes in with no prior knowledge gleans from your current exhibition? What do you what them to walk out of MOFAD thinking about?

For us, a lot of it has to do with connection. With Chow, we're using food as a lens to talk about racist immigration policy. We're talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how despite the fact that during that 60-year period Chinese people are functionally excluded from entering this country, the Chinese-American restaurant really blossomed and that restaurant cuisine becomes a part of the culinary zeitgeist. We want people to leave understanding why that's a remarkable story and how that happened, but we also want visitors to go home and think about their local Chinese takeout place differently. Here in New York, a lot of the Chinese takeout restaurants are still family-run and probably across the country as well. Hopefully, people are going into those restaurants and engaging with the folks that are running them. Who are those people? How did they get to the U.S.? What are their plans? What are their dreams? What are they cooking? We really want people to look at those spaces in a new way and engage with the folks who are cooking their food.

David Chang, a chef who I personally admire, has been talking a lot recently about trying to get people to rethink MSG. Do you bring that at all into your current exhibit or into your conversation about Chinese-American food?

It's funny you asked that. Our first exhibition at Lab was called "Flavor: Making it and Faking it" and it was on the history and the technology of the flavor industry. We had three main stories that we told. One of which was the quote-unquote "discovery" of umami as a taste and how Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who's a Japanese chemist, is the one who "discovers" it and names it and then begins manufacturing MSG in Japan. So we talked a lot about MSG in our first exhibition and we decided not to have any panels about it in this exhibition. But we often get that question at our culinary studio, and we often refer people to Harold McGee's piece on MSG which was in the first issue of Lucky Peach. But our stance as a museum on MSG, if that's what you’re asking, is that the studies have not borne out whether or not MSG is definitely bad for people. Now obviously everybody's bodies are different so if somebody feels that they react to MSG we're not going to argue with them about that because we don't know what's happening in each other's bodies. But, you know, MSG is used in so many foods in this country in the industrial food system and has been since the 30s in things like Campbell's soup here in the U.S. So, for us, it's not a scary thing. We did talk about in the Flavor exhibition the racist underpinnings of the fear of MSG with "Chinese restaurant syndrome", but again, that's not something that is an active piece of this exhibition.

While conducting research for the CHOW exhibit, did any one dish or food strike you as having a particularly interesting history?

I'm going to sort of answer your question. I became really intrigued by chop suey. We ate a lot of it because our initial thought was that our tasting at our culinary studio for Chow would be chop suey and historic tastings of chop suey. So, we found a lot of historic recipes dating back to the late 1800s for chop suey. We made a lot chop suey and we ate a lot of chop suey. It's one of those things that's funny right, it's one of the first Chinese-American dishes to really blow up if you will. But it's not something that's really on many menus anymore, and even now it's different. Those early recipes show usually a soy or Worcestershire based brown sauce and today chop suey is made with white sauce. It's interesting to me to think about how dishes change over time and why. I didn't look into it very much but I'm still fascinated by the idea that this one dish is a reason that Chinese-American restaurants really become en vogue in the late 1800s/early 1900s but it's something that we don't really eat anymore.


What made you choose to focus on food history?

I majored in history as an undergrad, my full major was social and cultural history which I got at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. While I was at CMU I really thought I was going to be a music journalist. I also minored in clarinet performance so I was taking a lot of music history classes as well. That was where my passions laid. I did take a class where we read Sidney Mintz's book Sweetness and Power about sugar and I was not touched by it. It's a seminal food studies book but I was like "What is this? Why do I care?", which is funny to me thinking about it now. But I finished college and I didn't know how to write for Rolling Stone and didn't really know what was next. I was just working around Pittsburgh and started thinking about food in a different way in my 20s. I was having people over for dinner parties, getting into wine, those sorts of things. I had always been a good eater, both of my parents worked so we spent a lot of time together around the dinner table or in the kitchen on the weekends menu planning or cooking things for the week, or family baking around the holidays. Food was always the center of things that we did when I was growing up. So, it makes sense that I rediscovered that in my early 20s when I was working and forming a household of my own. I started thinking about food differently, I started interacting with food differently, and I started reading food memoirs such as Ruth Reichl and Michael Pollan. I started thinking about how I could have a career in food that wasn't necessarily working in a restaurant because that wasn't something that I was interested in, I didn't want to become a chef. I saw an ad in the newspaper for a food studies program at Chatham [University] which is where I did my master's degree. It really all sort of clicked, it fell into place for me. And of course, while I was there I realized that I could study food history. I think I saw it as the history of a recipe, or of a dish, or of a chef. Which, again, that's not personally where my passion for food history is. I like thinking about people and place and culture and the bearing that has on your food and what you eat and why you eat that, and I really was allowed to do that there. When I moved to New York with a master's degree and again wasn't really sure what I was going to do, I found MOFAD. It was sort of perfect because I had volunteered and interned and worked at history museums while I was in college and after college and then here was this museum that had food as its central focus and it made a lot of sense for me. I lucked out, I think, finding MOFAD and realizing that food history made sense for me, and being able to hold onto it and keep working.

As an undergrad studying history, I feel compelled to ask this question. How did your academic career influence your working career? (The answer to this question was submitted after the interview via email.)

There are the obvious skills around research (using databases to locate materials, analyzing primary and secondary sources, crafting and conducting oral history interviews) and writing (synthesizing and analyzing research, crafting tight and compelling narratives). A few other skills also come to mind that I've jotted down below:

1. Learning the formal way to address and communicate with professors: One of the first things my freshman seminar professor taught our class was the proper way to interact with professors – how to address them in person and over email, how to keep our requests short and respectful. It feels so simple now, but I'm so glad I learned this skill early on in my academic career. At MOFAD, I often have to reach out to professionals, academics and others, with no introduction. Sending that first professional email can set the tone for a productive working relationship.

2. Comfort using non-traditional primary sources: Perhaps "non-traditional" is not quite the right term. Still, I became quite comfortable during my undergraduate coursework for my music degree in using performances, songs, lyrics/poems as primary sources. This has served me well as a food historian where cookbooks, agricultural manuals, and recipes can serve as primary sources.

3. Communicating why you should care: I think this is something I began to learn as an undergrad, but really honed during my graduate work. Whenever I write, I keep the question "But why should I care?" in the back of my mind and try to answer it (sometimes again and again). I think with any topic, but especially with a topic rich in materiality like food, it's so important to convey to your reader why this thing matters, why they should care. What can a historical event teach us about current events that are affecting our daily lives?

Where do you see MOFAD headed in the future?

My dream for MOFAD is that we can continue growing and can continue putting together meaningful and thoughtful exhibitions. We're in a bit of a transition right now. Our next exhibition, which I'm really excited about, is called "African/American: Making the Nation's Table" and it's about the many contributions of African Americans to the creation of American cuisine. As part of that, we won the rights to the Ebony Test Kitchen from the Johnson Publishing Co. building. That was the test kitchen where all of the recipe testing was done for Ebony Magazine, Jet Magazine and also some other Johnson Publishing Co. magazines. It's really exciting for us to have this historic and crazy super psychedelic, 1970's, orange, purple, green, swirly kitchen on display from my hometown of Chicago as part of that. That exhibition will be on show at a different space, not MOFAD Lab but instead at the Africa Center, which is a museum in Harlem. It'll be on display there for six months next year and then it will travel. So that's amazing for us, a travelling exhibition. And then from there, we're figuring out what's next for us, where we'll go. I think that for me and for our staff, we're not trying to be and we don't want to be a place like the Museum of Ice Cream or one of those sort of Instagram “experiential” museums. We are really hoping that people come and they have an "a-ha" moment, and they learn something about food that they didn't know or they're inspired to think deeper about the things that they're putting into their body, or how foods and drinks get to their plates and to their cups. I think that we've been able to do it with our exhibitions so far and I just hope that they keep getting bigger and better.

Catherine Piccoli can be found on Twitter @gigaEats and Instagram @giga.eats. The Museum of Food and Drink can be found at mofad.org, as well as on Twitter and Instagram @mofad.